SAN FRANCISCO — Algae, almonds and sunflower seeds will all play an important role in the future of plant-based protein innovation. These and other novel ingredients were discussed during a series of panels on March 12 at the virtual Future Food-Tech summit.

Product developers are discovering new ways to process and combine plant materials to deliver better nutrition, functionality and taste. Califia Farms, a maker of plant-based dairy alternatives, blends multiple sources of plant protein in its products, said Suzanne Ginestro, chief marketing officer.

“We’ve learned people come to plant-based dairy for health reasons and stay in there for taste,” she said. “Nutritional equivalency is job one, but you can’t have that without delivering on taste and mouthfeel and all of the sensory attributes that are going to be necessary to keep people consuming and loving and really adopting these products. They are both equally important.”

Califia Farms’ portfolio includes products formulated with pea, flax, sunflower seed, mushroom, hemp and more, she said, adding “we’re always exploring what’s next on the horizon.”

The company does not use soy ingredients in its products, Ms. Ginestro said.

“I think there’s baggage with soy as it relates to consumer perceptions,” she said. “When I think about that broader consumer plant-based adoption, they’re looking for things they know and love. That’s why things like mushrooms and sunflower and flax and chickpeas are more appealing because they’re familiar with what’s in their pantry or refrigerator.”

Califia Farms productsTaste remains the driver of purchase decisions and represents a priority in plant-based product development. Consumers experimenting with dairy alternatives may expect a similar experience to conventional dairy products, said Laurette Rondenet, president and chief executive officer of Edlong Corp. The company offers a range of dairy-free dairy flavors that create a creamy mouthfeel while masking the off-notes found in some plant proteins.

Another consideration is cost. Many alternatives offered today are more expensive than animal-derived products. Phaedra Randolph, founder and CEO of Spero Foods, is focused on creating more affordable options. The company produces a line of non-dairy cream cheese-style spreads using organic sunflower seeds, coconut oil and probiotic cultures.

“Our premise is how can we use ingredients that are already in the supply chain, that are already scaled, already available and inexpensive to transform them into products that are accessible and affordable to people and taste good and are sustainable?” Ms. Randolph said. “Our products in the next few years will be one-to-one priced with dairy. Removing cost barriers we’ve traditionally seen in the dairy alternatives sector will allow more and more people to access them.”

The rise of new product introductions featuring almonds has accelerated in recent years, said Josette Lewis, PhD, chief scientific officer for the Almond Board of California. Almonds resonate with consumers because they understand the nutritional benefits and they fit into popular specialty diet plans, she said. Additionally, almonds boast a neutral flavor profile that is suitable for sweet or savory applications.

Spero cream cheese style spreads“Where we start to see the innovation taking place is in bringing different processing technologies to play with almonds as a starting point,” Dr. Lewis said.

She cited as an example almond protein powder, which is almond meal with a percentage of the oil pressed out, creating a defatted almond flour with higher protein compared to regular almond flour.

“That has opened up additional opportunities to include almonds in a plant-based meat product or a blended product, a place we haven’t been heretofore," she said.

Microalgae may unlock additional possibilities in plant-based innovation. Xun Wang, chairman, president and CEO of Triton Algae Innovations, said the company’s algae ingredients are rich in protein, vitamins and omega fatty acids. Triton has developed a scalable process to produce heme and other meat-like compounds in red algae without genetic modification.

Mathieu Baudouin, head of sales, Americas – plant proteins at Roquette, said his company offers the widest range of pea proteins in the market and is dedicating to discovering new plant-based sources of protein in the years to come.

“When we look at protein, we look at a number of angles,” he said. “What is the taste profile consumers will be expecting? What are the nutritional dimensions we need to deliver on? More and more we need to make sure the proteins we bring align with sustainability.”

The panelists agreed there is not one ingredient or solution but a combination of approaches required to sustainably feeding a growing global population.

“There is room for diversity and complementarity in this world,” said Dr. Lewis of the Almond Board of California. “I won’t even speak ill of the dairy industry because all those dairy cows in California eat the hulls from our almonds as part of their feed ration and help us be a zero-waste industry.”